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After Joshua and the people of Israel crossed over the Jordan and before they assaulted Jericho, Joshua had this strange encounter:

Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” He replied, “No, I am captain of the Lord’s host. Now I have come!” Joshua threw himself face down to the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, “What does my lord command his servant?” The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.—Joshua 5:13-15 (NJPS)

On the one hand, Joshua's reaction and the command to remove the sandals reminds me of the burning-bush theophany in Exodus 3.

But on the other, the text twice identifies the figure as "the captain of the Lord’s host", not the Lord Himself. The title itself seems strong evidence that someone other than the Lord is indicated.

So who is "the captain of the Lord’s host"? As far as I can tell, this small section in Joshua is the only place he appears in the Tanakh.

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The word 'sar' and 'shor' are the same when vowels are dropped. Shor means umbilical cord. It is suggestive of the relationship between the Lord and his captain such that the captain is the 'son of God'. This is figurative and as such only implies the figurative meaning, not addressing the issue of theophany. –  Bob Jones Jan 21 '12 at 16:54

3 Answers 3

I just came across your question and am surprised that no one has attempted to answer it yet. I am by no means a scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, but I would like to offer some thoughts.

First, your astute observations underscore an intriguing theme that appears often in the historical books of the Tanakh: the appearance of a figure who is described with the titles or characteristics of God, but also with those of an angel (e.g. Jg 13:3f, esp 13:22 ) or with those of a man (e.g. Gen 18:1-2, Gen 32:24,30 ). Many other examples can be found by doing a search on the "Angel of the Lord". In fact, quite often when these figures appear, they are referred to as the Lord and his angel interchangeably (e.g., "the Angel of God said....'I am the God of Bethel'." [Gen 31:11,13]). This pattern is somewhat peculiar and disarming to the reader, particularly when one first encounters it; but it is certainly not uncommon.

There are a plethora of interpretations of this motif, which I won't go into here (though it certainly deserves a question of its own in this forum). Personally I believe it highlights the fact that whenever the infinite God appears to a man, there is necessarily a mediatorial aspect -- one can never see Him "as He is", but only as He reveals Himself (as a burning bush, or as an angel, or as a man, etc). This reminds us of His ineffable glory and unfathomable majesty. At the same time, it also foreshadows and prepares us for the ultimate incarnation of God in the person of Jesus.

That your passage is another example of this motif is more clearly seen when we read past the chapter boundary (which wasn't in the original), noting that the first verse of the next chapter is probably just parenthetical. So then the passage reads:

The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Now Jericho was shut up tight because of the Israelites; no one could leave or enter.) The Lord said to Joshua, “See, I will deliver Jericho and her king [and her] warriors into your hands." —Joshua 5:15-6:2 (NJPS)

So, while I agree that this is a somewhat peculiar way for Him to refer to Himself, I think the context (as well as the theophanic allusions that you noted) makes it clear that Joshua's visitor was none other than the Lord God Himself.

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In the Hebrew Bible, this person represents the "hornet" that is identified in Joshua 24:11-12, which correlates back to Deuteronomy 7:20. (The Hebrew noun is צִרְעָה, and is a collective noun with no plural form -- so while "hornet" or "hornets" appear in the various English translations, the word is a singular noun which includes the collective meaning in Hebrew. For example, in English, the words luggage and poultry have no plural forms, but are collective in meaning although they can be still used to refer to individual items.) It was this "hornet" in the Hebrew Bible that had first driven out the two Amorite kings (Sihon and Og) according to Joshua 24:12, which is confirmed by Deuteronomy 31:4 and Joshua 2:10. So this Captain of the host of the Lord represents the hornet collective.

As the "Captain" of the host of the Lord, he is the "chief hornet," who is also identified as YHWH (Joshua 6:2). This Captain led the "host of the Lord" that preceded the Israelites into the Promised Land to defeat the enemies of Israel according to Exodus 23:27-28. This host threw the inhabitants of the land into confusion at the very moment when they engaged the Israelites in battle (please compare Exodus 23:27 with Joshua 10:10-11 for one example). If we compare Joshua 10:10-11 with Psalm 18:12-15 and Psalm 144:5-6 (where the same Hebrew verb for "confusion" appears), then we see that this psychological warfare against the enemies of Israel included the extraordinary but deadly effects of weather as well (hail, thunder, and rain). Thus the hornet way-laid (or struck down) the enemies of Israel, which is the literal meaning of צָרַע ("be struck"), which is the cognate verb from which the Hebrew noun צִרְעָה ("hornet") is derived.

Thus the "hornets" were led by YHWH himself, who is the "Captain of the host of the Lord" in this passage of Joshua 5:13-15.

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Interesting take...the hornet aspect. :) –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Oct 11 '13 at 23:43

Before Jesus came into world, no man had seen God at anytime "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" John 1:18.

What I'm simply saying is that "the captain of the Lord's host" was an angel, God was to go in before Israel and make them to possess the land. Also in the "burning bush" it wasn't the Lord God who was talking out of the fire, but an angel (Acts 7:30), now angels came in the name of the Lord in the Old Testament and hence most of the writers call them "the Lord". Angels have the ability to appear in any form fit for the occasion; for example, Genesis 18 & 19 they appear as men, also in Exodus, an angel led Israel as a pillar of cloud by day n fire by night. They can also appear in glorious form, as per Luke 24:4 "behold, two men stood by them in shining garments".

In 2 Kings 6:15-18 an army of chariots was seen by Elisha and his servant after he had prayed for him to see with spiritual eyes. So then this can suggest that an unseen army of angels was with Israel as they went in to dispossess the inhabitants of Canaan and "the captain of the Lord's host" was leading those unseen angels as we see in 2 Kings 6.

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Hi Raphael. Could you take a moment or two to edit your answer for spelling, grammar, and punctuation? As it is, I'm having a tough time reading your answer. While you are at it, could you read through what we are looking for in answers? It seems like you are skipping some steps in your exegesis. –  Jon Ericson Nov 1 '13 at 22:26
    
"no man had seen God at anytime" -- Moshe? The 70 elders? –  Gone Quiet Nov 17 '13 at 0:30

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